The extent to which the British horseracing industry’s concern for its workforce has greatly improved since the turn of the century can be seen in two recently-published surveys, both immensely revealing and important.
The first of these, sponsored by the Racing Foundation, deals with stable staff recruitment, skills and retention issues, while the second is a research document carried out by Liverpool John Moores University in association with the charity Racing Welfare, to look at the subject of mental health in racing.
The stable staff survey, an industry-wide project, was carried out to assess the impact of the Racing Foundation’s three-year £1m grant in the area of staff recruitment.
Many trainers will tell you that recruitment and retention of staff is one of their biggest headaches and this latest survey suggests very little has changed.
However, the survey – conducted in 2018 and making like-with-like comparisons with 2016 – does show there is a marked increase in the number of yards providing training for their staff, while there are definite improvements in staff perceptions around training, development and career opportunities.
Results show that 40% of staff have received training over the last two years, which is up from 29% two years previously. Virtually all trainers now buy in to the importance of giving staff training, with the majority now aware of initiatives being offered by the industry.
While it is true that wages and working hours and conditions may always be key drivers in recruiting and retaining staff, we must recognise how this goes hand in hand with the need to establish proper career paths for stable workers. It follows that the more staff are instilled with the belief they can improve their lot by becoming better qualified at their chosen career, the more they will strive to better their positions as ambition replaces disillusionment.
It is also encouraging to see that three-quarters of racing staff say they are satisfied with their working lives. The main reason cited for this is, of course, a love and passion for riding and working with horses and it has to be said that without this crucial factor, our staffing situation would surely be much, much worse.
But if there are elements of encouragement in the stable staff survey, it is difficult to glean anything positive from the mental health study – except for the fact that the work has at least been undertaken. Yes, we were all aware that stress, anxiety and depression were prevalent in racing’s workforce – particularly jockeys – but never to the extent that has been laid bare in this excellent, if depressing, piece of research.
The report makes clear its prime purpose is not so much to tell the industry what it can do to address these profound problems but more to stimulate recognition and debate. Equally, it says, addressing the issues should not be motivated purely for moral reasons but because widespread ill-health inevitably has a bad effect on the industry in economic and productivity terms.
Nobody doubts the BHA, along with all of racing’s constituents, is serious in tackling this problem but racing is, by its very nature, a highly competitive business operating in a highly competitive environment. Our world is one where the highs of winning and the lows of losing are amplified and exposed, where there is no time for proper reflection and no opportunity to allow yourself to get off the treadmill because you may lose your next ride or your next winning opportunity.
The burgeoning fixture list over recent years has exacerbated the problem, causing working hours to be extended at a time when racing struggles to attract staff. The huge pressure this puts on trainers, jockeys and stable staff often results in mental health issues.
A decline in total prize-money will now see a reduction in everyone’s pockets, so compounding the problem and underlining the importance of what these surveys are telling us.